2016: A Year’s Worth of Memories (Lily Mastrodimos)

by Steven Spoerl

Heartbreaking Bravery recently went offline but all facets of the site are back to being fully operational. Apologies for any inconveniences. All posts that were slated to run during that brief hiatus will appear with this note.

Last year, Lily Mastrodimos turned in one of A Year’s Worth of Memories‘ most definitive pieces. It was an uncompromising look at depression and learning to navigate that with different methods of self-care. It’s an honor to be hosting yet another Mastrodimos piece as part of this year’s edition of the series and this time around the musician’s turned in another definitive entry. The Long Neck mastermind (and Jawbreaker Reunion guitarist/vocalist) once again grapples with grief, loss, and finding strength and comfort through music. Tragic, absorbing, and uplifting, it’s more than worth the read.

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My family lost 3 grandparents in 2016: my maternal grandmother (Nana) and both of my paternal grandparents (Yiayia and Pappou). Nana left us on January 20, Yiayia passed away on February 23, and Pappou passed several months later on September 13. I find it overwhelmingly difficult to separate everything I experienced or did this past year with the grief that my family and I felt. It is so deeply ingrained in 2016, and sometimes I see it as two arms holding everything I did this year close to its chest and refusing to let go. 2016 was a big year for me scientifically and musically, but the grief I felt fused more closely to my relationship with music, becoming a part of everything I wrote or played or listened to throughout the year.

I associate Nana’s passing with the Adult Mom/Jawbreaker Reunion tour, Yiayia’s with the Titus Andronicus show that let my sister and I shed the pain of the previous month and a half, and Pappou’s with the end of the gobbinjr/Long Neck tour. It felt like everything I did in between their passings was already defined by them, and it became a daily challenge to figure out how I would cope with the weight of each.

Nana’s passing had cut me down and kept me down for what felt like eternity. She had always been so supportive of both my musical and scientific aspirations, though she put more emphasis on my biological pursuits. Nevertheless, she would mail me newspaper articles about interesting bands or performances, and would insist that I write a ballad for the next JBR album. When she left, things froze and I felt like I was sinking. Yiayia’s passing sucked what remaining energy I had left away from me. After seven months of working through the pain and feeling like I was getting better, Pappou’s passing brought a strange and heavy weight to my shoulders.

I came to recognize that grief feels like a standstill, and the grief that follows the death of a loved one was one that I had not felt before. It was immobilizing and overwhelmingly exhausting. My grief settled in the center of my chest like a pile of stones, crushing the air from my lungs and sending out waves throughout the rest of my body. I was depressed and felt hollow. Things felt surreal. Days were interminable, and I couldn’t bring myself to get anything done.

Everything I was, everything I encountered, every inch of space that surrounded me, felt monstrously heavy. I was becoming increasingly anxious that I was blurring the line between self-pity and the pain of grief, terrified that I was growing lazy and comfortable within the shell that mourning had built around me.

Writing kept me busy and gave me something to do while I tried to make sense of everything I was feeling and processing. Most of the music I wrote during this time was either quiet and hushed or very loud, with no real in-between. It felt like the louder songs took longer for me to work on, like I had to find the energy to sing them. Playing shows with JBR and Long Neck also provided relief through consistent bursts of energy, even if singing certain songs made me feel raw or exposed, like I had to relive everything I was feeling or thinking word-by-word.

When I got back home, I’d retreat to my room and try to muster up the fortitude to go over the quieter songs, the ones that specifically focused on loss and mourning, the ones I wrote for Nana, the ones I wrote to help me figure out how I could feel better. While some of these songs will never see the light of day, they allowed me to channel the grief I was feeling into something, anything.

When I wasn’t writing or playing, I found refuge in Battle Ave, Titus Andronicus, Mitski, Jeff Rosenstock, PUP, Chumped, the So So Glos– bands whose music I could scream to in the car when I needed to release my anxiety or tension. My job had me working throughout the northernmost regions of New Jersey, close to the New York border. I’d drive around the forests of Passaic and Bergen counties, past lakes and reservoirs and mountains, haunted roads and abandoned tourist attractions.

The silence and isolation of this part of the state was soon filled with the crashing sounds of guitars, the bittersweet words of strangers, the driving and soul-shaking bass tones, all swallowing me in a sea of noise within the confines of my old car. It was a kind of escapism that let me drown out my own frantic thoughts with something louder, something I could lend my voice to and still feel like I was beating back the sadness.

I realize now that much of what I listened to in 2016 was music that tied me to land, to my favorite places, to my home or the places where I felt home. Battle Ave’s Year of Nod, for instance, brought me back to the woods upstate where I had found comfort during other tumultuous times. Titus Andronicus reminded me that I could never be truly lost or alone in my homeland of Jersey, and I found myself listening to The Monitor most of all. For my sister and I, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” became something like our own battle cry- especially at the last line (“I’d be nothing without you, my darling, please don’t ever leave”).

When we saw Titus in February, hours after attending Yiayia’s funeral, we received a shot of catharsis that we desperately, desperately needed. We could hardly believe it when the first chord was struck for “Battle”, and spent a majority of the song screaming along. When the last line came around, we lost it. Suddenly, we were heavily sobbing, hugging each other and shouting “Please don’t ever leave” through the tears. The last few months washed over us in a bitter and acute sense of grief, then quickly melted away and left us with immense relief, joy, and peace. We left the show amazed, empowered, hopeful, and for the first time in a long time, happy.

For the most part, the music that got me through the year focused on relationships, on connections, on the love we have for our friends and our family, on the importance that these people hold in our lives. It was the music that you and your best friends or your sibling would scream to each other in a big crowd.

And we drank, and we talked shit, and I was happy” (“Name That Thing”, Chumped)

“Do you believe in something beautiful? Then get up and be it” (“Me and Mia”, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists)

Music that is loud and commands you to let people know just how much they mean to you, and how you would feel if they were suddenly gone.

“I’d be nothing without you, my darling, please don’t ever leave”

“I gotta let you know while you’re alive cos I’ll be a disaster when you die” (“…While You’re Alive”, Jeff Rosenstock)

“I look up at the gaps of sunlight. I miss you more than anything” (“Francis Forever”, Mitski)

Music that reminds you that it’s OK to take breaks, but you have to fucking get up and keep moving, as seemingly impossible as that feels, because this cannot break you.

I called up some folks I truly love and hung up after they said hello. I got so tired of discussing my future, I’ve started avoiding the people I love” (“Nausea”, Jeff Rosenstock)

“This winter hasn’t been so rough. Oh it was cold, but it wasn’t cold enough to freeze the blood between my spine. And at least I survived” (“Dark Days”, PUP)

Then there was the music I actually made with my best friends. The shows I played towards the end of the Adult Mom/JBR tour– and the enormous support of my bandmates and tourmates– helped me get through the news of Nana’s hospitalization and her declining health. The release of JBR’s second album and the show we played to celebrate it filled me with a tremendous sense of pride and joy that left me elated and filled with so much love.

When I started feeling small or uncomfortable or anxious in the area I call my home, Long Neck shows and practices reminded me that I could carry the grief I had without feeling ashamed, and my bandmates were there to help me find my footing again. Our tour with gobbinjr felt like an amazing dream, and in recording our second album I can revisit everything I felt in 2016 without feeling heavy, lost, scared, or alone, because I have them.

In 2016, music reminded me that when your loved ones leave you, it doesn’t mean love itself is gone. If anything, you begin to see the love that you have in your life more clearly. You want to take everyone in your life and write them long letters expressing how much you love them, so they can have a physical record of it. You want to savor every moment you spend with your family and your friends and your pets and hell, even strangers or vague acquaintances. You become increasingly nostalgic, and while at times the memories sting you, eventually they flood you with warmth and you quietly give thanks to the time you were given with people who have come and gone.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank everyone who helped me make it through the year. I won’t name everyone, because it’s a fair list, and chances are you already know who you are. (If you don’t, be sure that the next time I see you, I will hug you and tell you in person.) But I want you to know that I am so immensely thankful to have you all in my life, so grateful for everything you did for me. I want you all to know how much you are cared for, how much you are appreciated, how much you are loved. For the new year I resolve to be more open and honest with the people in my life, take more risks, be more thankful and live without fear, and be as available and kind as best I can, and not take the people in my life for granted.

We all grieve differently, and I’m not going to pretend to speak on behalf of everyone who has ever lost someone and mourned gravely and deeply. My grief was and is my own. It took me nearly the entirety of 2016 to start feeling O, to understand that there is no limit for the time you can spend grieving. There are days that are still tough, and as we’re nearing the end of January I know that things may start feeling weird and off and tough again. But I am more confident now that I’ll make it through. I will be OK because love still exists and will continue to exist, because I will keep making music no matter what, because I am surrounded by amazing and supportive and caring people, and life will keep moving forward.